Crimson Shroud

Crimson Shroud is a small scale 3DS game developed by Yasumi Matsuno (Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics) during his brief stint at Level-5. Sadly his stint was so brief that all they managed to churn out was this high concept ‘table top’ RPG. It’s also pretty good.  The game takes place on the map of a palace, navigating locations you select with a pointer, moving your character ‘pieces’ as you progress.  Some locations simply offer narrative advancements, while most of them engage you in a fairly standard turn-based battle.

the map of the palace

Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII all set a thematic precedent for what you can expect in Crimson Shroud. Like all of these games Shroud is saturated with complex ideas and familiar themes.  While the scope is clearly much smaller I still think they managed to create an abridged version of the amazing RPGs these creators are known for.  I really enjoyed it and I think it’s safe to say if you’re familiar with the previous works mentioned then Crimson Shroud will make you feel right at home.

Did the gambits from Final Fantasy XII confuse you?  How about the multitudes of unclear stats/abilities/systems from Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together?  The weapon melding from Vagrant Story??  If so, avoid Crimson Shroud.  No-one seemed to think it was appropriate to minimize the complexity to match the miniature size of the game.  It’s saturated with ideas that feel disproportionately complicated compared to the 6-8 hours your’re gonna spend with it.  But this is exactly my thing, and why I keep coming back to it all.  The game within the game.

Since there are no actual character levels, Crimson Shroud forces you to place an unhealthy level of importance on the weapon and item drops you get from the few battles you’ll face.  Take into account that said drops are reliant upon how well you perform in said battles and you find yourself in a situation where you absolutely must be paying attention to every single thing you do.  Accidentally not choose the key item that’s required to advance in chapter-2 from the performance based loot screen after a specific battle?  Well, fight that battle again.  And that’s if you EVEN KNEW WHAT YOU WERE LOOKING FOR IN THE FIRST PLACE, which you won’t because the game never tells you.  All you really get is an extremely vague hint about what you’re looking for and are required at this point in the game to understand the obscure rules to the battling and loot drop systems in the game.  I personally replayed a couple battles simple because I didn’t understand that I was looking for an item to unlock a door, and when the item did drop I didn’t even know what it was.  Looking around for other opinions online I ran into more than a few others sharing a similar experience.  Not a game-breaker by any means, more of a minor complaint.  Trial and error, RNG and a devious GM can all be enjoyable parts of a table top experience.  I chalk a few of these decisions up to the game concept and I find that to be incredibly compelling, if not skillfully implemented.

Giauque – still don’t know how to pronounce this shit

Many Matsuno’isms are healthily intact in Crimson Shroud.  Here’s what to expect:
– Hundreds of different pieces of equipment, items and spell scrolls (character-specific and general) that drop at different rates from different battles.  Similar pieces of equipment can be melded together infinitely to create a stronger versions of that specific item (Falchion + Falchion = Falchion +1, etc.)  You can also meld equipment with spell scrolls, which upon equipping to a character will allow them to use the spell.
– Rare drops that unlock certain chests, doors, areas that are both required and extra.  Methodology for acquiring rare drops usually involves killing specific enemies that may or may not appear during a battle depending on what order you kill your enemies in.
– A robust character stat system that contains all the variety and ambiguity you could ever ask for.  I still don’t know what exactly affects what when it comes to: ATK, DEF, STR, VIT, DEX, AVO, INT, RES.  How to assign your gear and what stats to focus on for each character is a mini-game in and of itself.  You’ll have to work at it, analyze it and through trial and error find what works best (and even then you may not even know exactly what you did to get the results you ended up with).
– Characters have specific skills that you obtain after certain numbers of battles.  This is the closest thing to traditional leveling up in the game.  You will get the chance to choose a new skill after most major battles and after reaching certain numbers of battles.  After two play-throughs, I still don’t think I’ve seen the end of the skills.
– The order at which you progress the game from area to area can alter your experience.  For instance, if you go to one area before another, you may find that things are slightly different that in you were to do them in the opposite order.  There aren’t many opportunities for this in the game, and even when there are it’s subtle.  In chapter-1 if you go to a certain area first there’s a harder battle than if you were to go somewhere else first and there second.
– A New Game+ that’s damn near a whole new game.  No one should really only play this game once.  The second game contains new and stronger items in the chests, new fights and boss fights, new areas, stronger enemies and a real ending to the story.

All of this amounts to a level of complexity and content that you wouldn’t (and kinda shouldn’t) expect from an $8 downloadable mini-game that’s one fourth of a collection.

I would actually argue that the story and characters here are some of the most interesting to come out of a Yasumi Matsuno game.  Not having any true Ivalice material made Crimson a bit more fresh for me.  I mean, there’s no huge distinction between this and anything else that took place in Ivalice (artistically or thematically) but it’s impressive that they went about crafting an entire world and parts of a greater mythology just for the sake of presenting a more complete story.

deepest lore

The trio of Giauque, Lippi and Frea are compelling antagonists in a story that’s clearly much bigger than the events in Crimson Shroud.  While they do generally fulfill standard heroic archetypes, our main characters are still fleshed out enough to not feel stale.  The dynamic between them as they progress further into this unknown castle just feels genuine somehow.

Much of this is due to the sheer volume and quality of the text and writing.  Alex O. Smith’s localization achieves the typical high standard, effortlessly weaving fantasy elements into realistic intrigue.  The narration takes the form of an overseeing entity, a GM type, who goes to appreciated lengths making sure every detail is dramatically fleshed out.  This goes a long way to help the player visualize the events, as the game engine itself only presents motionless game board pieces for the characters.  This aesthetic (which at first seems like a bummer) is brilliantly presented.  The models didn’t feel lifeless to me.  The character interactions and subtle battle effects did wonders, filling them with life.  In the end it all feels just how I imagine they envisioned it to feel (like a board game), and that’s most definitely a victory for them considering the assets they were working with.

Without the artistic brilliance, depth of storytelling and quality of writing all of this could’ve easily been a boring hack-job of an idea.  Thankfully it comes off more like reading a well-written fantasy novel where you always feel like there’s a wealth of mythology waiting around every corner.  I’ll stay away from spoiling anything story-wise because I think the first ending is more interesting, but I feel confident saying that playing through a second time is a requirement considering it provides a slightly more enhanced version of what is actually transpiring in The Palace of the Rahab.

Based on everything I’ve described here it would be a safe guess to assume this game will can only be enjoyed by a pretty specific crowd with particular tastes.  But I’d actually say Crimson Shroud can reach more than the RPG family.  Since visual novels have exploded in popularity and board games retain their niche, I think a hybrid like this still has a place in a lot of gamers libraries.  The package itself is polished (the music and art are design are both un-fucking-believable), has AAA developer pedigree and the story is well worth hearing.  If YOU’RE ALREADY an RPG fan who hasn’t checked this one out yet, literally no reason not to.  Your time and money are well-rewarded by this secretly cool little experience made by a guy who might not ever freely make a game again.


1. Vagrant Story

2. Chrono Cross

3. Xenogears

4. Final Fantasy XII

5. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

6. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

7. Resident Evil 4

8. Final Fantasy XI

9. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

10. Mass Effect

11. Dead Rising 

12. Batman: Arkham Asylum

13. Dynasty Warriors 7

14. Brutal Legend

15. Paper Mario

16. Radiata Stories

17. Crimson Shroud
Maybe I am the biggest Matsuno fanboy out there but the miniature size of this game just can’t elevate it into the realm of competition with other, full-sized games…much less big RPGs like Radiata Stories.  It IS better than the worst Zelda game though.

18. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

19. Kingdom Hearts

20. Dissidia: Final Fantasy

21. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

22. Final Fantasy XIII

23. Final Fantasy XV

24. Dead or Alive Xtreme 2



Batman: Arkham Asylum

baa-misc01I spent a lot of time writing out this long-winded diatribe about how overrated Batman: Arkham Asylum is and that if you take Batman out of it all you’d have left is a generic action game.  After some thought I’ve come to the conclusion that the game is actually good and my cynicism was getting the best of me.  The story is fun and I love the animated series voice work.  I dislike the Gears of Arkham graphics and character models but I love the actual art work and characters.  I was really torn.  So, I chewed up and spit out my original hate-filled draft and have swallowed my pride to write a much more positive and respectful review of Batman: Arkham Asylum.  I guess it’s a good game.

The pacing is bang on, the RPG Lite elements of building a better Batman are rewarding…all built around a sublime combat system that blurs the line between action game and brawler.

What really sticks out to me about Asylum’s combat is the visual flair and sound mechanical execution.  If you’re anything like me (rigidly formulaic) Arkham Asylum offers you the opportunity to approach every group of thugs the same way.  Jump into the fray, wait for guys to smack you and conveniently counter with slick button presses until they’re all knocked out.  Simple, effective and maybe a bit soulless.  For me, that was nirvana.  The idea that I could almost rhythmically respond to assailants to create this almost dance-like visual presentation of a bunch of guys getting beat up by a superhero is something that appealed to me. Not every game needs to be Tactics Ogre. I don’t mean to call Batman: Arkham Asylum an easy game, per se, but there’s a fluidity to the combat that makes it feel user-friendly.  I believe that its structural simplicity encourages people to try and master it.

100% Legitimate Design.
100% Legitimate Design.

Which I never did and have no interest in.  And that’s fine I think.  Who cares if you want to master it, complete all additional modes and get high scores and be amazing?  The complexity and difficulty is there if you want it, but easy to avoid if you don’t.  The cliche phrase would be ‘easy to learn, hard to master’, right?  Perfect example.  Just because I wasn’t really ever concerned with heading into all the additional battle and stealth arenas to obtain completion  percentages doesn’t mean those modes aren’t worthwhile. They just require a little more effort than ‘press Y to counter’ and as soon as I couldn’t float through a challenge within five tries I put it down. Luckily for me, eschewing additional modes hardly trimmed any fat from the meaty experience that is Arkham Asylum.

Sadly, many write-ups presented the idea that this game was “atmospheric”. The specific time frame in video game history that saw Asylum released made it easy for reviewers to frequently cite this description. With other experiences like BioShock around, we were force-fed the idea that video games were in the midst of some sort of ambient renaissance, suddenly presenting alternate worlds that immersed us just SO FUCKING HARD that we forgot we were ever sitting on our couches staring at a television.  Most of my vitriol about Asylum was born from this short-term memory loss approach that the community took.  Games have given us splendid worlds to explore for decades now.  Asylum is not the first.  And it’s hardly the most atmospheric.  What the fuck does atmospheric even mean?  It was cop-out buzz language that made the average fan think they were wading into ‘games-as-art’ territory, another cringe worthy piece of English that instantly became overused and therefore meaningless.

I battled my own hatred for Arkham’s reviews so desperately that the clear virtues of the game were lost to me…for a long time.  Now, though, I can describe in my own words what I feel the weird atmospheric comments were referring to.  Arkham Asylum’s world is well conceived.  It flows, makes sense and is fun to explore.  There are lots of nooks and crannies, lots of secrets to find and puzzles to solve.  The island is well-populated with interesting set pieces that fit together nicely and the simple but effective ‘unlock new gadget -> unlock new area’ works well and is logically implemented.  Finally, the cute easter eggs sprinkled around complete the setting, making it incredibly recognizable as a Batman experience.  When I think atmosphere…Silent Hill comes to mind, or Demon’s Souls.  Not Batman: Arkham Asylum.

No, I don't recall saying anything about the male body types.
No, I don’t recall saying anything about the male body types.

Out of respect for myself I should point out that I was legitimately disappointed in a couple aspects of the game. The boss fights are dismal, repetitive, lack creativity.  Oh! Another hulked up Bane’oid? Cool. In a related complaint, there’s little variety in the in-game character renders too…does every single NPC in Arkham need to be a beefed of Gears of War superbro?  Some police officers out there (and even Commissioners!) are, like, regular sized dudes.  I get that it’s a video game, I really do.  But you’re reaching by talking about atmosphere and immersion if literally every single male body is the same, even in a video game.  Obviously there aren’t enough heroes or villains, either.  But I’ll let that one go considering this was the first good Batman game in forever and I’m sure it was a bit of a leap for Rocksteady to go from literally nothing to a triple AAA developer working on one of the biggest licenses in the world.

At the end of it all I must say, Arkham Asylum is a really great game.  It effortlessly combines fun combat and an interesting world to move The Dark Knight himself seamlessly into the video game space.  History has shown this to be no easy task, and kudos must be officially presented.  Rocksteady even took a risk or two with the narrative, putting old Brucey in some interesting Scarecrow related content that was pretty unexpected at the time.  My only regret is that I wasn’t able to fully enjoy my first impressions as much as I could’ve if I wasn’t such a cynical asshole.

baa-promo1Click here to see where Batman: Arkham Asylum ranked in my Master List!
Why it placed there!


Xenogears came to me unexpectedly when my gaming experiences weren’t nearly as robust as they needed to be.  RPGs were still a relatively new thing to me at the time and I was only just starting to understand what they were all about.  Looking back on it now, Xenogears is probably the last thing that I ever should’ve considered playing.  I seek out this type of alternative experience now but back then I was just looking for the closest thing to what I already knew, Final Fantasy.  What a blessing in disguise.

Truthfully, I never would’ve found it at all if it wasn’t for big Mike on the bus home from eighth grade.  One day he started poppin’ off about some crazy RPG he just had finished called “Zenno-gears”.  Other than the name and a stubborn proclamation that Zennogears was easily the Best RPG Ever Made he wasn’t providing a lot of meaty details.  Intrigued upon his attempt to lend me the game I optimistically obliged…which ended up as maybe the best decision ever.

I was immediately struck by the cool box.

Remember the old days of “Non Final Fantasy Squaresoft RPGs Made By Non Final Fantasy Designers That Don’t Get Hardly Enough Credit”?  They used to be pretty damn good.  Vagrant Story, Chrono Cross…things of that nature.  While you could always depend on Final Fantasy to provide a solid experience, these other games were less chained to convention.  Back then some serious designers took part in what could be described as obscure projects that were really anything but.  When you’re SquareSoft, though,  and you’ve already got your breadwinner it isn’t necessary to market anything else you’re doing.  We still get awkward off brand Square Enix RPGs (Drakengard, Nier) but they aren’t quite what they used to be during those Golden Years.

Xenogears was a product of this PS1 role playing renaissance.  Released in 1998 and riding the heels of the enormously successful Final Fantasy VII, Tetsuya Takahashi’s religiously saturated RPG was not exactly center stage in the popular sphere.  People found it, of course, like my friend on the bus did.  But I wouldn’t say that it was even near the forefront of an already massive catalog of PlayStation RPGs.  The last thing I want to do when I talk about this game is stubbornly proclaim that Xenogears should’ve been a huge hit, or even that a few more people had played it.  The game is just genuinely not made for the general gaming public.  Time to sound like an elitist asshole!  A lot of people don’t have the capacity to appreciate Xenogears.  Yeah, I don’t go there often but there’s no better way to phrase it.

Takahashi and crew were not making a Final Fantasy.  This simple fact allowed these developers to bend the boundaries of convention a bit.  It provided them an arena to express their creativity more freely, and it shows.  The battle system was innovative and complex.  The story was brutally mature in concept, not only in its imagery but in its references and emotional themes as well.  Both the music and art were beyond brilliant and the character sprites rendered over the fully 3d world were beautiful.  You know, there was a lot going on in this obscure RPG from 1998 that I would have loved to see again at some point but non of it really seemed to stick with anyone other than its fans.

|Xenogears’ Battle System|
I can honestly say that Xenogears’ battle system has remained pretty damn unique.  Nothing before it and certainly nothing that followed seemed to even acknowledge that someone had created a turn-based system in an RPG that was actually fun.  Not only were you expected to understand classic RPG mechanics to succeed but you had to wrap your brain around a borderline Street Fighter-esque button combo input.  God forbid one of those wacky JRPGs incorporate some sort of interaction for once.  While the standbys of ‘Magic’ (Arcane or Ether) and ‘Defend’ were ever present the ‘Attack’ option was where the real innovation came through.

The sprite animations are also really fluid and well done.

In essence Xenogears presented a system that recognized a series of button presses as combos that would eventually lead your character to perform a finishing move.  X, Square and Triangle were all assigned basic (but different) attacks that when pressed in certain orders would allow you to perform a special deathblow attack.  While, for example, seven triangles in a row wouldn’t perform a combo you’d still hit the enemy seven times.  Fun, but I always thought the real beauty of the system was actually learning the deathblows.

If you happened to perform a triangle, triangle, X enough times (provided that’s a recognized combo) your character learned that combination and from that point on performs a specific deathblow every time you enter it.  Once a deathblow for a combination is learned you can use it endlessly or move onto spamming the next unlearned combination.  What ends up happening is that you spend most of your random battles trying to learn new deathblows while using the ones you already have on bosses and/or tough fights.  This system performs miracles in terms of making the grind less boring and creating a level of immersion that is damn near impossible with most other RPGs.  It was completely unprecedented for a player to feel like they had that much control over their party member actions or development, even if it was just a fancy elaboration on a simple theme.

|The Story|
Perhaps right now you feel that what I just tried (in vain) to explain is a little complex.  It is…and I’ve found it extremely demoralizing trying to puzzle out even the simplest pieces of this madness for mass consumption.  To my sorrow I should also do my best to explain Xenogears’ STORY in a WAY THAT MAKES SENSE, maybe to a reader who HAS NEVER HEARD OF OR PLAYED THIS GAME.  Luckily, if you break down all of the complicated twists and turns you’ll find that behind all of the perceived insanity is a simple tale of love, or rather, lost love.  It’s a tragic narrative that boils down to a single moment when two men reacted differently to losing the same woman.

Then it gets complicated…Krelian and Lacan begin to weave a history for Fei and company when they react to the tragic sacrifice Sophia makes in order to save many lives during a war, including Lacan’s.  His bitterness towards himself for being too weak save her (or himself) drove him nearly mad and he adopted the persona of Grahf, the Seeker of Power.  He then sought to destroy God himself and the two entities involved in the conflict that took his true love’s life.  Fei’s encounters with Grahf slowly unfurl the twisted tale of that singular tragic event while simultaneously revealing pieces of Fei’s past in the process.  How these two characters relate in the end is absurd, intense and beautiful.

As interesting and deep a character as I’ve ever seen.

Krelian on the other hand, a dear friend of Sophia, took the loss differently.  Devastated by her sacrifice, Krelian declared that were there truly a God watching over them Sophia would never have been put in a position to sacrifice herself.  That someone as kind and good as her would be protected.  From that moment on Krelian set out to fill the vacancy in heaven he knew existed, to create God with his own hands.  Sadly, ‘creating God’ required vile acts that split Krelian’s soul asunder.  What remains of this extremely complex character by the climax of our story is difficult to describe.

On top of that there are wonderful character elaborations here that most game creators don’t even have the capacity or nuance to understand.  For instance, Lacan was a painter whose feelings grew for Sophia while he worked on her portrait.  As time went on and the painting neared completion he slowed down fearing the day he would complete it, that sad day he would no longer be able to spend hours examining her beauty and relaying it to canvas.  He ends up not actually finishing because the war comes and steals her away…an even worse fate.

This is about as simple as it gets with Xenogears, because almost everything else is layered upon that concept…that relationship between these characters.  I’ve found that my interpretation of the story is at its most powerful when I begin to relate every event to that core idea.  Yeah there’s crazy shit about religion, lost civilizations, giant robots, Id (most ridiculous and amazing character storyline ever), reincarnation even…but the entire game is anchored by the tragedy of Sophia’s sacrifice and the destruction it wrought on two important characters.  And it is powerful.  When you can finally get to a place with Xenogears where you understand all of the moving parts the depth of the themes really start to shine brilliantly.  In fact, it’s only through two complete playthroughs and a shit ton of reading Perfect Works translations that I can even give a base account of what the hell is even going on.

Xenogears’ story requires an investment and dedication.  Things are not explained to you in any sort of digestible manner, you’re expected to put the time in.  Were the personal rewards not as robust as they are for doing so it wouldn’t be worth the trouble.  But it is.  Never have I encountered in any medium a saga so affecting, so worth it.  As devoted as I am to my Shepard and the reaper invasion or as nostalgic as I am about the Final Fantasy series, none of them carry nearly as much weight or hit me as hard as Xenogears does.  It’s both emotionally and physically devastating to play the whole way through but in the end you feel as though you’ve done more than just played a simple video game.  This is also the reason I find myself slow to recommend Xenogears to any but the most sincere and understanding people.

And the people that do find the courage to commit to this game?  They discover a story filled with maturity that could really only resonate with an adult, a person who has actually experienced shit in their life.  I think Xenogears is the only video game I have ever seen that actually depicts the serious love interests laying in a bed naked having just slept together (and not in that very BioWare overt fan service way).  Or that an extremely manipulative relationship between two other characters would take them to the same place with a much different tone.  Silly, that a game with a love story might actually relay that intensely personal ‘thing’ that every single human being on the face of the earth can identify with: physical attraction, sexual intimacy and taking a relationship to the next level.  I would call it ballsy in any other game but these sequences fit the tone perfectly, implemented in a way not to shock the player (but it is kind of shocking anyway), but to make the characters and situation seem all the more realistic or identifiable.

|The Music|
Yasunori Mitsuda is Xenogears’ composer and it is some of the finest work I’ve ever heard.  In fact, I would have a hard time describing Xenogears as ‘realistic’ and ‘identifiable’ were it not for its soundtrack.  If only songs like these were playing somewhere in the distance in our real lives when epic things happened.  Finding anything that compares to this OST is really hard for me, and I’ve tried.  It’s true that I believe Chrono Cross to have the best music in video games and I will stand by that statement, but Xenogears is special.  I’m hesitant to even list it by comparison because it’s difficult for me to qualify just exactly what it does.  There are honest to god moments in my daily life where a song like “The Treasure Which Cannot be Stolen” will play on random and I will stop what I’m doing because I have to concentrate on not shedding tears in front of my computer screen.  There is a beauty in this soundtrack that very few other things in this world have achieved, a very pure and emotional sentiment that makes you feel as though Mitsuda himself was moved during its creation.

The entire score is extremely heavy, or powerful.  It’s a tone that compliments Xenogears perfectly, a game that is itself very serious and thought provoking.  Tracks like “The One who is Torn Apart” (Id’s theme) express something through subtlety that is hard to find anywhere but here, and it’s something I struggle to describe…so I won’t waste my time.

These songs are two examples from a score that honestly doesn’t have a sour track in it.  While you may find the quantity to be somewhat lacking considering the size of the game, each song has an important quality that does nothing but elevate Xenogears every moment a tune can be heard.

I should be honest, this has been my most difficult game review to write on this blog.  Xenogears really means a lot to me, not only for the way it introduced me to the idea of mature themes in an entertainment medium before I had really developed a taste for it, but kinda just for being what it is.  Not even Takahashi’s own works after Xenogears come anywhere near it.  Every time I play the game I learn something new and my adoration grows, the experience and memory becomes more potent.  This, to me, is the definition of a masterpiece.  A vision.  Something that words simply just cannot describe.  Truly one of the best games ever made…Mike was right, even if he couldn’t tell me why.

Reading back over this I’ve found, not surprisingly, that I haven’t written much at all about the game itself.  Usually when I do these things it’s more of a stream of consciousness effort than a structured outline of points.  I knew Xenogears was going to put me in a weird place for that reason.  When I think about the game the things that come to mind aren’t the menus or the pacing…I don’t even really consider the wonky delivery of the narrative.  Playing this game isn’t always fun, it’s just not.  There are obvious imperfections, I’m not trying to hide that.  In fact, many aspects of this game could be called less than average.  The gear battling is not nearly as robust, fun or interesting as the regular.  The second disc is enough to make a gamer who’s used to Final Fantasy polish throw his copy out the window.  All I have to do, though, to remind myself that this game is special is remember how hard I fought back the tears when I heard the music box version of “Small Two of Pieces” play in Citan’s backyard hut near the beginning of the game.

Or think of the phrase Fei’s Kim.

Or ponder the tragedy that is Ramsus.

Or to know that I’ve experienced something not meant to simply sell the most copies or spawn the most sequels.  That I walked down a path that was someone’s vision and not just a yearly corporate creation advertised in GameStop’s window.  Not only is Xenogears one of a kind, it very well could be described as the last of it.

Click here to see where Xenogears placed in my Master List!